Washington (CNN)-In a rare public display of political and personal acrimony, freshman Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky squared off Wednesday with the powerful Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Tempers flared on the Senate floor over how many amendments Paul could offer to a measure extending the main anti-terrorism surveillance law enacted after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
Key provisions of that law – the Patriot Act - are due to expire Friday, and the dispute between the two senators threatens to cause a brief lapse of the law. If that happens "it could have dire consequences for out national security," warned Reid, D-Nevada.
"The national security of the United States is at stake, and the junior senator from Kentucky is complaining that he has not been able to offer amendments," said Reid, who supports extending the Patriot Act provisions.
"When the clock strikes midnight tomorrow, we would be giving terrorists the opportunity to plot attacks against our country, undetected," Reid added.
A furious Paul raced to the floor to respond to what he called a "scurrilous accusation."
"I've been accused of wanting to allow terrorists to have weapons to attack America," said Paul, a leading figure in the conservative Tea Party movement. "To be attacked of such a belief when I'm here to discuss and debate the constitutionality of the Patriot Act is offensive and I find it personally insulting."
The disagreement focuses on how many amendments to the bill Paul is allowed to offer, in particular, one aimed at preventing warrantless access to some gun records.
"They are petrified to vote on issues of guns because they know that a lot of people in America favor the Second Amendment to own guns and want to protect it," Paul said, adding that he wanted to prevent the warrantless access to some gun records because "we don't want our records to be sifted through by a government without judicial review."
Reid accused Paul of "fighting for an amendment to protect the right – not of average citizens, but of terrorists – to cover up their gun purchases." Reid then invoked the deadly shooting at Fort Hood, Texas and suggested Paul's amendment would prevent law enforcement from tracking the weapons purchases of that gunman.
"It's hard to imagine why the senator from Kentucky would want to hold up the Patriot Act for a misguided amendment that would make America less safe," Reid said.
Republicans defended Paul and blamed Reid, who had promised a full week's debate and an open amendment process but pulled back on both after time ran short.
In turn, Democrats blamed Paul for stalling the process and not agreeing to a reasonable number of amendments.
Even in a town known for sharp political jousting, it was unusual to see such public and harsh attacks on the Senate floor. That it involved one of the most powerful establishment senators against an anti-establishment newcomer made for a fascinating political moment.